La Scena Musicale

Monday, 4 February 2008

Karajan: The Music, The Legend

Soloists; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Orchestra of La Scala, Milan; Herbert von Karajan, dir.
DG 4777097 (CD: 70 min 55 s, DVD: 74 min 2 s)
*** $$

CD: Bach: Concerto for 2 Violins; Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5; Brahms: Symphony No. 4
DVD: Beethoven: Symphony No. 5; Suppé: Light Cavalry Overture; Excerpts from: Brahms: A German Requiem; Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Wagner: Das Rheingold; Leoncavallo: Pagliacci

This audiovisual set represents the entry-level offering in the DG commemoration of the Herbert von Karajan centennial. It marks a subtle change in marketing strategy by the yellow label. DG now appears intent on recruiting a whole new generation of Karajanites from youngsters scarcely born when he died. Youth is also being actively courted on the company's website, where an avalanche of HvK is available for download. For seasoned collectors, the welter of commemorative reissues mostly boils down to a case of, "Been that." That said, the CD encased in the handsome hardcover booklet does have a certain degree of collector appeal. The sombre Liszt Rhapsody is beautifully played in its CD premiere. Never previously released in any format, the Bach concerto may be inauthentic in style but the interplay between soloists Christian Ferras and BPO leader Michel Schwalbé is fascinating. The Brahms Fourth gets a splendid outing from 1964, a version that many might not already have.

Rated on its own, the DVD would be lucky to walk away with two stars. With the exception of the 1973 Unitel film of a "mock-live" Beethoven Fifth (already issued on DVD) and a genuine and pleasing concert performance of Suppé's Light Cavalry overture, the rest of the programme consists of "bleeding chunks" to promote forthcoming releases. Of these, four minutes' worth of Jon Vickers from Pagliacci and a quarter of an hour from Rheingold appear to offer the most promising prospects. There is also eleven minutes of Alexis Weissenberg in the Rachmaninov concerto.

Other attractions of the centenary are listed in the booklet. A look at the "selected discography" indicates that it is pretty much business as usual as far as Karajan's most memorable recordings. It is a pity that DG seems to have lost enthusiasm for re-mastering into SACD since 2003. More of Karajan's most durable hits need to be heard in super audio, especially the Schumann and Bruckner symphony cycles and his indelible accounts of Mahler's Sixth and Ninth. His last recordings (with the VPO) of Bruckner 7 and 8 would be spectacular in surround sound.

The Lebrecht Manifesto: Herbert von Karajan is the man that Norman Lebrecht loves to hate. The blaze of publicity surrounding DG's Karajan celebrations incited an outburst in his column of January 30 which dripped with vitriol. Certain to please the misinformed and prejudiced, the details are not worth bothering about except his concluding statement that, "Herbert von Karajan was a moral and creative nullity." The towering intellectual, Sir Isaiah Berlin once told Richard Osborne that he considered Karajan to be "an ignoble conductor," yet Berlin's concise summation of the conductor: "He was a genius - with a whiff of sulphur," is surely closer to the heart of the matter than Norman's rant.

The truth is out there: Richard Osborne's biography of Karajan was published in 1998 (Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music). Lord Yehudi Menuhin had this to say about the book: "...A monumental work of scholarship, of integrity, of sympathy born of respect and humanity. A woven tapestry rather than a mere listing of events and accomplishments, it reveals itself quietly and objectively, leaving the reader to judge a man whose personality was inseparable from the history of the age and his own background." If you care about the Karajan legacy and possess an interest in music making in the 20th century, read this book before buying a single commemorative disc. The Pimlico trade paperback can be ordered from reputable bookshops at a cost of about $65. Online, offers a hardbound edition at half that price.

Meanwhile from EMI: While DG is being very selective in choosing commemorative albums and boxes, EMI is re-releasing...everything. Two mega-boxes (orchestral: 88 CDs and vocal/choral/opera: 62 CDs) at super-budget prices will be offered along with a number of sampler sets. More about that later...

-Stephen Habington

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